An Unexpected Lesson in Inequity

It had been a week seemingly without end.  It was one of those weeks that every teacher has from time to time.  One week had bled into another which bled into another because entire weekends had been filled with work.   I was running on empty and just trying to push through the fatigue.


In the middle of a 6th grade lesson on writing expressions, I passed out some cards for a Quiz/Quiz/Trade activity to translate words into algebraic expressions.   When I planned the lesson, I decided to re-use some cards I had.   I didn’t have quite enough in a set for the the whole class,  but there was just no way to squeeze in the time to make another larger set.     No problem, I thought.   I’ll just use two sets of the cards.   Each set was a different color.   Half the class would use one color, the other half would use the other color and they would just quiz within their color group.

I watched the first round of the activity.   Everyone was successfully writing their expression.   The quizzing and trading went smoothly.  Students proceeded to find new partners as they finished their problems.   As I watched that second round, I saw a crack in my carefully constructed world.   As I watched the third round, I saw a giant chasm.

This is what happened.

When I distributed the sets of quiz/quiz/trade cards, I gave half of each table group one color card and the other half of the table group the other color card.  Based on my current seating chart, that meant half of the girls were in each group and half of the boys were in each group.   There was a tiny little wrinkle, though, that I hadn’t anticipated and that brought the whole house of cards crashing down.   My first period class is 1/3 female and 2/3 male.    The first round, as is almost always true, each student sought out a friend with the same color.   So, the boys partnered with the boys and the girls partnered with the girls.   The second round, the same thing happened.   However, this time, when the boys partnered with other boys, there weren’t enough girls.   Girls were left without a partner.   I held my breath, watching to see if the boys would notice and adjust their choices in the third round.    They didn’t.   Once again, boys partnered with boys and girls were left without a partner.

No one intended it, but my female students were not having an experience that was equal to that of their male counterparts.  There were things that I could have done differently to ensure this did not happen.   There were things that my male students could have done differently to ensure that this did not happen.   There were things that my female students could have done differently to ensure that this didn’t happen.   Unfortunately, none of us did.

Given that this happened, the best thing that I could do was to have a conversation with my students and to be very explicit about what I saw.   I began by telling my students what I saw and asking them if they noticed it.   A few of them had, but many had not.   Then, I talked to my students about what it felt like when I was in high school and was the only female in my Calculus class.   I talked about having confidence in myself and my abilities, but still feeling a little bit of an outsider.   Then, I talked about what it would have felt like if my peers had excluded me, intentionally or not.   I wondered if that was how the girls felt during our Quiz/Quiz/Trade activity.   Then, I asked  how many experiences the boys got with the activity versus how many experiences the girls got with the activity.   I pointed out that more experience usually means more success and wondered about the fairness of what happened.

Finally, I asked my male students to be more inclusive, to make sure that everyone was getting equal access to math experiences.   Then, I asked my female students to be less well-behaved.  They looked a little stunned.  One of the boys mentioned the  “well-behaved women seldom make history” bumper sticker.   I smiled and then told my girls that each and every one of them has what it takes to make history.   I told them that there had been times when I had needed to be a little assertive to have a place at the table.   I told them it is OK to be a little bit pushy if they need to be.  One of the girls commented, “It’s like when we  play soccer against the boys.”   Exactly.

Now, I will watch and see what happens next.   I will hold both my boys and my girls accountable.   Everyone has a place at our table.

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